The arson, looting, and murder by hooligans owing allegiance to M.K. Azhagiri, son of Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, at the Madurai office of Kalanithi Maran's Sun TV and Tamil daily Dinakaran raises serious questions about law and order — and freedom of the press in Tamil Nadu. The police watched in silence as the thugs ransacked the offices, threw petrol bombs, and beat up the hapless employees. The provocation for the attack was the publication of the findings of a survey in Dinakaran that asked the question, `Who should be Kalaignar [Karunanidhi's] political heir?' Mr. Azhagiri, the survey found, scored six per cent in Madurai, the city he regards as his bastion; two per cent Statewide; and a humiliating zero per cent in Chennai. M.K. Stalin, younger brother and political rival of Mr. Azhagiri, notched up 70 per cent across the State; 68 per cent in Chennai; and a whopping 67 per cent in Madurai. An unnamed category, "Others," was shown as scoring 20 per cent Statewide and 31 per cent in Chennai.
With Mr. Azhagiri operating as an extra-constitutional authority in Madurai district ever since the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government came to power last year, the police were reluctant to act against the goons — who were led by known members of the Azhagiri faction. Shockingly, top police officers chose to wait for "political clearance" from the Chief Minister's Office before deciding to stop the attackers. By the time a shocked Mr. Karunanidhi gave the go-ahead to the police, the situation had spiralled out of control, leaving two employees and a security guard of the media group dead. In its news bulletins, Sun TV directly accused Mr. Azhagiri of unleashing his goons against the group's office in Madurai. Chief Minister Karunanidhi, who has a well-deserved reputation for being a decisive administrator, must not vacillate on what needs to be done at this critical juncture. Setting aside personal considerations and subjective feelings, he must ensure that the law takes its course. This means investigating the role of Mr. Azhagiri and his closest henchmen in the violence that resulted in arson and murder. It might be tempting for the party to blame the incidents on lower-level party workers or anti-social elements, but that will weaken the people's confidence in both the police and the government. Mr. Azhagiri, who is involved in one murder case, has a truly unsavoury track record: in 2000, when Mr. Karunanidhi disowned him politically, he instigated violence and forced a compromise within the family.
The attacks on Sun TV-Dinakaran expose the vulnerability of the media in Tamil Nadu. Political leaders in power are intolerant, sometimes viciously so, of criticism and opposition. Quite apart from governments using defamation cases and breach of privilege motions in the Assembly as a weapon against the press and the withholding of government advertisements as a way of expressing displeasure, elements within ruling parties regard resort to intimidation, threats, and even muscle power against the media as a perquisite of office. In Wednesday's tragic drama, Dinakaran was murderously attacked for publishing the findings of an opinion poll. Irrespective of the credibility and merits of the poll, which did appear bizarre and politically inspired in the questions it asked, nothing can remotely justify the manner in which Mr. Azhagiri and his supporters reacted — and what appears prima facie to be criminal negligence, if not worse, by the police. Everyone interested in democracy and the rule of law must take up the attack on Sun TV-Dinakaran as an issue of media freedom — and not regard it as a family feud, as some media commentators and partisan political voices have suggested. If the goons and their political masters in Madurai are allowed to get away with arson and murder, it might embolden others to target the media in future.
Chief Minister Karunanidhi — who has made no secret of the fact that he has been shaken by this ugly episode — has condemned the attack as well as the publication of the opinion poll, barred all talk of his political heir, and asserted that his party is a democratic organisation that has no place for such talk. Now he urgently needs to make an example of his delinquent son if his government's stock is not to weaken. Tamil Nadu, a State which has a reputation for efficient administration and a development orientation virtually independent of who is in power, needs urgently to be rid of all extra-constitutional sources of authority and all improper interventions in the administration and the rule of law. Once again the State police have betrayed their inability to act in accordance with the law against the politically influential and domineering. Chief Minister Karunanidhi will do well to opt for a CBI investigation into the Madurai episode in the interest of the credibility of his administration. He must not allow this tragedy to mar or affect the marking of a significant democratic milestone — half a century as a legislator.
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